Former FLDS calls new life as single mom ‘heaven’
Like many moms, Carolyn Jessop fills her days hauling her kids from one activity to another. Her boys have to be driven to football practice. Her youngest daughters need rides to girl scouts. Some of her kids do karate, one has math tutoring.
When Jessop, a single mom with eight kids between the ages of seven and 21, is not zigzagging around her neighborhood in West Jordan, she has to find time for her boyfriend of more than three years, time to write, and time to sew (she makes some of the costumes for the HBO series "Big Love").
While working on costumes for the show, she watched "Big Love," about a polygamist family in Salt Lake City, but she said it was unrealistic to the point of being almost unwatchable for her. One plotline, about a plural wife who racks up thousands of dollars of credit-card debt, particularly bothered Jessop. In the show, her husband bails her out. In real life, a wayward FLDS wife would not have been in that situation. "She never would have done that," Jessop explained in a telephone interview Monday. "She wouldn’t have been allowed to have assets in her own name."
Watching TV is just one way Jessop and her family struggle toward normalcy as they build new lives out of what they lost.
Jessop grew up in a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints colony in Eldorado, Texas. She was assigned to marry to Merrill Jessop, a much older man, when she was just 18 years old. In 15 years of marriage, she bore eight of his children and suffered physical and emotional abuse.
"I spent the first three years of my marriage in incredible shock," she said. "Then it just became something you knew was going to happen." All she could do was stay out of the path of aggression. After her husband returned from work, she learned to stand more than four feet away from him to avoid being struck.
Enough was enough.
She fled to a safe house in Salt Lake City in 2003, when she was 35, and more recently wrested custody of her children from the FLDS leader. Today, she is the bestselling co-author of "Escape," a memoir that chronicles her plural marriage to the man who ran the FLDS colony that would, years later, make national headlines after government agents raided the compound, seized property and took several children into custody when allegations of abuse surfaced.
The story of abuse is one Jessop knows well. Plural marriage fosters mistreatment from patriarchal men, she says, and wives are often pitted against each other. If two wives quarrel, their kids are the ones who suffer the brunt of corporeal punishment. "The children are on the bottom of the totem pole," she said. "They’re used as a tool or technique to control women. If you get out of line and do something that upsets another wife, she’ll hurt your kids. They’ll beat them up brutally because they didn’t do this or that, they didn’t do the dishes. You learn really fast the only way you can protect your kids is to not step on people’s toes."
Now on her own, Jessop said she is open with her kids about the choice she made to escape from the colony. She pledged early on that she would not replicate the atmosphere of fear and silence that haunted their earlier childhood. She said it was difficult for moms to give their children independence and space to grow, but she admired her kids. They tend toward modesty, she said, and have adjusted well to life in secular society. "I haven’t had any trouble with drugs or alcohol or dating," she said. "And I keep my kids really busy. They’re too busy to get into trouble."
The family no longer attends an organized church of any kind. "I heard a joke once," she said. "To me it really rings true. There’s religion and there’s spirituality. Religion is for people who are scared of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been through hell. I just feel like I can have a direct connection to God. He answered my prayers and got me out of a horribly bad situation. I survived every day based on a miracle."
Being a mom is the most important role of Jessop’s life. "Of course there are challenges, but overall it’s heaven," she said. "I get to make the choices in my kids’ life. I wake up every morning knowing my kids are safe. It’s just such a relief to have freedom, and protect my children, and give them a chance at life."
And no matter how much the family struggles, she said she takes pride in making choices that benefit her kids, six of whom still live with her. "In some ways it’s like coming from a poverty-ridden country to America and life is just unbelievably wealthy," she said.
As far as the FLDS values that were her bedrock growing up, she said they’re not all bad. "When you come from a culture like that you have to decide what is destructive and what’s worth hanging on to," she said. "I think honesty is a good one to hang on to. The culture was quite strong with hard work and there are some things I gained. We had some good skills for being self-sufficient."
Contrary to popular misconceptions about the FLDS faith, congregants say it has little in common with the Mormon faith. Jessop grew up around wine, beer and coffee, three no-no’s for LDS people. "The FLDS are not Mormons and it’s really unfair to the Mormon Church to even be compared to them," she said. "We may believe in the same scripture, but the belief behind the scripture is completely different."
Writing a bestseller has undoubtedly changed Jessop’s life. She received more than a little flack from polygamist leaders when the book was published. "There’s been a lot of outright venom," she said. "People think I’m insulting their beliefs. I’ve had to be willing to get out there and share my story," she said. "It’s taboo to talk about it. When I wrote the book, I wrote it with truth and honesty. Grief and hardship, in these polygamist families, you don’t share it. You don’t talk about it."
Jessop described herself as rebellious from an early age, and she frequently found herself on the wrong side of the rules. Novels were frowned upon, especially ones about romance, and she was relegated to children’s books. "Novels about romance were so off limits it was unbelievable," she said. "Those were considered as bad as it gets. I just think it’s because the books focused around love and the society was so void of that. It was considered unnecessary. You weren’t really supposed to have a relationship, a romantic one, with your husband. That was considered frivolous. Having babies and doing what you’re told is what it centered on."
Despite her involvement with the FLDS, Jessop said she doesn’t hate men. "There are some really nice guys out there and some really crappy guys. And there are a lot of really nice women and a lot of really crappy women."
Jessop is the featured speaker at the Friends of the Park City Library’s autumn author luncheon on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at Deer Valley’s Silver Lake Lodge. Tickets are $35 for members of the Friends of the Park City Library and $40 for non-members. Tickets are available at the circulation desk of the Park City Library at 1255 Park Ave. and at Dolly’s Bookstore on Main Street. Tickets will be available for purchase through noon on Oct. 17.
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